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Rekindling Jewish life in Poland


WROCLAW, Poland -- When Americans Ellen Friedland and Curt Fissel first went to Poland a few years ago, they expected to learn only about Jewish death -- the annihilation of 3 million Polish Jews during the Holocaust; the death camps; the devastated shtetls, cemeteries and synagogues. They were amazed to find small Jewish communities that had begun emerging after the fall of communism.

Ms. Friedland and Mr. Fissel became immersed in chronicling -- and championing -- this still fragile rebirth and produced a documentary film about it in 1997.

Influenced by the experience, Mr. Fissel, born a Christian, even reclaimed his own distant Jewish roots and converted to Judaism.

During their work on the film, the couple fell in love.

When they married earlier this month, they made a statement by holding the ceremony in the partially renovated White Stork Synagogue in the southwestern Polish city of Wroclaw.

It was the first Jewish wedding in the synagogue in 36 years. For the couple, Wroclaw's Jewish community -- particularly the synagogue -- had became powerful symbols of the destruction and revival of Jewish life in Poland.

"Why Wroclaw? We don't know," Ms. Friedland told the congregation. It included up to half of Wroclaw's estimated 600 to 1,000 Jews, nearly 200 non-Jewish townspeople and about 30 friends and family from the United States and Israel, some of whom acknowledged having had to conquer deep-seated fears to make the trip.

"When we started coming to Poland," Ms. Friedland said, "we felt the spirit of the 3 million dead Jewish souls. And they brought us here, specifically here, to this synagogue and this Jewish community, at a time when the synagogue had no roof and no floor and there was little apparent hope for the future."

Because of a grant of more than $1 million from a German foundation, the synagogue has a new roof and its ground floor has been restored, though its two balconies and exterior still need reconstruction. Local Jews have ambitious plans to turn the complex into a fully active Jewish center.

"The rebuilding of the synagogue," Ms. Friedland said, "is a metaphor for the rebuilding of personal, communal, religious, cultural and political lives."

The wedding took place two weeks before the opening of "Remembering for the Future 2000," a major Holocaust conference in England, which drew about 700 scholars from the around the world.

Its stated aims included seeking to assess the legacy of the Holocaust and encouraging the development of its study into the next century. "It is the present that asks questions about the past but it is the past that sheds light on the strangeness of the present," said organizers.

The strangeness of today's present includes efforts at Jewish revival in the countries where the Holocaust took place. These communities are still fragile and their ultimate fate is not yet sure. But they, their aspirations and their needs are also part of the legacy.

Ruth Ellen Gruber writes about Jewish affairs from Europe. Her latest books are "Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe" (Jason Aronson, 1999) and "Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today" (John Wiley, 1994).

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